The RISE and REIGN of the MAMMALS, by paleontologist Steve Brusatte (HarperCollins, June 7, 2022) is a conveyor belt of fascinating facts and conjectures about the origins of our species. Although Brusatte’s book sifts through the sands of time unearthing dry bones, the manner in which he tells the story, our story, is nothing short of prosaic prose transformed into poetry.
The dramatic rise of mammals and ascent of humans over this planet occurred only after the cataclysmic event of a six-mile-wide asteroid colliding with Earth 66 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs who had reigned supreme for millions of years. No longer having to hide from the terrifying fangs and claws of predatory giants, our ancient ancestors were able to find their niche in a world of expanding horizons.
Tracing the path of the rise and eventual reign of man, Brusatte presents a myriad of facts about todays’ mammalian cohabitors of our planet that will whet your appetite and fire up your imagination. One of the amazing examples he gives is that the largest animal species to ever live on our planet has its progeny still living with us today. It is larger than the biggest dinosaur, but eats the smallest prey, has a nose but cannot smell, has teeth but does not chew, its forebearers used sonar millions of years before man, and its earliest known variety had legs. It is the Blue Whale.
The book lists a string of surprising and fascinating details of our origins and that of other mammals as we traveled together through the millennia. Our nearest non-human cousins are the Chimpanzees, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA. Today, humans share up to 2.8 percent of our DNA with the now extinct Neanderthals. If you ever wondered what the difference between a Wooly Mammoth and a Mastodon is, other than one dons a fur coat and other goes bare, it is the former ate grass and the latter ate leaves. The fierce Sabre-toothed tiger is not a tiger, and the original elephant was the size of a small dog.
The author claims that although we are in a hiatus between ice ages, we are on the cusp of the beginning of a new one which will entomb Toronto, Chicago, and New York in a mile high glacier. He states that climate change is nothing new, it is cyclical and ironically the destructive greenhouse effect of today may benefit life on our planet by inhibiting or reducing the severity of another catastrophic ice age.
As humans we have survived the devastation of ice ages, blankets of volcanic ash, asteroid collisions, and animal predators because our big brains enable us to adapt to changing environments, but also, we have the ability to wreak havoc on this planet, and for the first time in history there is a species, Homo sapiens, whose name in Latin means ‘wise men’, who have the ability to totally destroy it. The question remains; can we reign-in our own propensity toward self-destruction or rise to achieve the full potential of our humanity. That is a question only we can answer.